California Democrats on Tuesday killed a bipartisan bill to strengthen punishments for repeat traffickers of minors, continuing a years-long push to empty prisons.
The legislation, Senate Bill 14, would classify trafficking of children and teenagers younger than 18 years old as a serious felony on par with murder, arson, and rape, which would bring longer prison terms and potential life sentences without a chance for a plea bargain. The six Democrats on the Assembly Public Safety Committee abstained from voting on the bill, preventing its advance toward a vote by the full chamber. Both Republicans voted yes.
"All [longer sentences] do is increase our investments in systems of harm and subjugation at the expense of the investments that the communities needed to not have this be a problem to begin with," Democratic majority leader and committee member Isaac Bryan said during the hearing.
The Democrats' downvote came even as local leaders and anti-trafficking activists across California have warned that sex trafficking is surging since the state in January decriminalized loitering with the intent to commit prostitution in the name of transgender rights. The Public Safety Committee has killed a number of proposals this session meant to address rising crime—including a previous bill to sharpen penalties for sex trafficking. Progressive members of the panel have for years worked to ease punishments for criminals and reduce prison populations.
During Tuesday's hearing, survivors of human trafficking gave emotional testimony. One of the women, who testified anonymously, said she had been imprisoned after being trafficked and opposed the bill for fear it would criminalize other victims. The other, Odessa Perkins, criticized the panel’s reluctance to keep offenders in jail as enabling a "horrific cycle of abuse and depravity."
"I’ve heard the opposition ... [on] mass incarceration of blacks, harm to communities, and I’ve heard many speak about jail overcrowding," said Perkins, who is black. "But I’m here to say that I was molested and raped repeatedly by black and white men and even some women. So it does not matter the race. What matters is saving our children. Traffickers are getting out of jail, parole, and reoffending, continuing the horrific cycle of abuse and depravity."
Sharmin Bock, a former prosecutor for Alameda County, testified that traffickers in California, a national hotbed of the crime, rarely receive more than a few years of prison time and "are getting so brazen because the law has no teeth."
"Let’s now recognize that organized crime is in it, gangs are in it, because as you heard from our witness, they can do it over and over again," Bock said. "So recognize also that this is a huge moneymaker. These girls are ATM machines."
Public Safety Committee chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D.) said that he had planned to vote against the bill but decided instead to abstain and allow the authors to make revisions. He did not specify what changes could make the measure more acceptable to him.
Assemblywoman Liz Ortega (D.) effectively told sex-trafficked minors that the criminal justice system could not help them.
"I'm struggling with how do we support you with mental health access, with housing, with education, with good jobs, because it's part of a holistic approach," she said, addressing the witnesses. "Sending someone to prison for the rest of their lives is not going to fix the harm moving forward. And that's the part I'm struggling with. It's a complex issue."
State senator Shannon Grove (R.), who co-authored the bill along with two Democrats, expressed shock at Tuesday's defeat. She noted that she had already modified the bill to target only repeat traffickers of minors and that her Democratic colleagues in the upper chamber had unanimously voted yes.
"We amended the bill … thinking that once we got to the Assembly… [it] would be so easy to get out of this committee," she said. "And I’m sad to hear that I was wrong."